An Interview with Jayne Anne Phillips
Sarah Anne Johnson | May/Summer 2002
Jayne Anne Phillips
Jayne Anne Phillips was born and raised in West Virginia. Her first book of stories, Black Tickets, won the prestigious Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction. Machine Dreams, Phillips's first novel, a New York Times best-seller, was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and was chosen by the New York Times Book Review as one of the 12 Best Books of the Year. She is also the author of a second book of stories, Fast Lanes, a novel, Shelter, which was awarded an Academy Award in Literature by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and chosen as one of the Best Books of the Year by Publishers Weekly. Her most recent novel, Motherkind, was nominated for Britain's prestigious Orange Prize. Her books are available as Vintage Paperbacks.
Phillips's work has been translated and published in 12 languages. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, and a Bunting Fellowship from the Bunting Institute of Radcliffe College. Her work has appeared most recently in Harper's, Granta, Doubletake, and the Norton Anthology of Contemporary Fiction. She has taught at Harvard University, Williams College, and Boston University. Phillips is currently Writer-In-Residence at Brandeis University.
Sarah Anne Johnson: How did you start writing?
Jayne Anne Phillips: I was always a reader, the kind of kid who read constantly. Very early on, reading seemed a way to be bigger than I was, to know more than I should know, to travel more than anyone I knew had traveled. I came from a small town in West Virginia, and people there were very stationary. They were much less mobile than the rest of the country. Most of the people I knew-and I think it's still true of that place-tended to move in and out for jobs much less than people from other places. They tended to be connected to the land and the region, and to have had several generations of their families there. It was a very isolated and intense world. Early on, I saw reading as a way of both escaping and deepening that world. Reading seemed very subversive and writing, later, became an extension of the same knowing, mysterious secrecy. Reading led to writing for me. I started out writing poetry in high school, and by the time I was 19 or 20, I'd started writing short prose pieces. Those developed into the one-page fictions in my first book, Sweethearts, which was published by a small press. I taught myself to write fiction by writing very compact, spiral-shaped pieces that moved according to language rather than plot or idea.
Johnson: Pieces that had the intensity of a poem.
Phillips: Yes. I've always written line by line, with a sense of the sound of a sentence and the rhythm of words against one another. My early sense of narrative had more to do with trying to get across perception itself rather than telling a conventional story. That very short form was a good way to intensify and deepen language. They were narratives, but moved out from an image and worked according to sensory association. I'm still a language-oriented writer.
Johnson: What inspired the shorter form of story you use throughout Black Tickets?
Phillips: My trajectory has been to work from short forms toward longer forms. Short forms suited me early on because I was working from a more jagged consciousness. That's where I was at the time. As I moved into more conventional story lengths (though I've never really been a conventional writer), I grew more interested in having a longer relationship with the material and working with it for years, which is what I do with a novel. I went from writing those short pieces that were complete in one page to writing stories that worked like one piece of glass pressed against another: stories in alternating sections; stories that found their own form; monologues; and series of monologues telling the same story from different points of view. I found voices that let me work with scary, intimidating, or spiritual material inside more conventional forms, so that readers take the words into themselves before they realize what the book's about. This is one of the interesting things about fiction as opposed to poetry: When we read a poem on the page, we're aware that we're reading a poem because of the shape it has. When we pick up a story, it's in paragraphs just like the prose in newspapers, or the directions for how to operate an appliance. The reader takes the voice into her mind before she has time to erect barriers against it. That's true for the writer, too. Many times you're not aware of what you're working with until you get deeply into the material. The material itself instructs, compels, and mesmerizes the writer-just as the resulting book teaches the reader how to "read" the world of that book.
Johnson: Would you call yourself a minimalist writer in Black Tickets?
Phillips: That's a funny question, because I found myself mentioned as the definition of minimalism in a book that came out few years ago. It really depends on what I'm writing. I feel strongly that, at least for me, material dictates form rather than the other way around. I write my way into the material to find out what it is and what form it should take. There are stories and pieces I've done that are minimalist, and there are other things I've done that are very lyrical. It really depends on the voice in which the work resides. Most writers work at trying to find the right voice. Stories often occur to me complete with a voice. That's all that they are in the beginning. It's a question of being faithful to that voice, staying inside it and sustaining it until the end of the piece, whether it's a story or a novel.
Johnson: How do your stories come to you?
Phillips: Fortunately, that's a mystery. Stories and novels often occur to me in their first lines or their first paragraphs. I've had the experience of writing a first paragraph that's very language-oriented but very cryptic in terms of the story or a narrative act. I'll hold onto the words in a notebook for years before they find their way into the book the paragraph describes.
Johnson: When you write the book, is that paragraph included?
Phillips: Oh yes, usually as the beginning. I don't throw much away. I'm a very self-censoring, slow, painstaking writer. I find it difficult to write. I have to overcome a lot of resistance, but resistance is part of the pressure that makes the writing work. It's all a matter of one's relationship to the work. It has to do with people finding a way to do what they need to do. Writing has always seemed to me to be an art in which there are no guarantees at all-it's meant to be extremely risky. I've always tried to write about what's most compelling, frightening, attractive, or about what I least understand. I don't require a knowledge of what I'm entering into. That's part of the writer's bargain and part of the risk we must take in order for there to be any risk apparent in the work.
Johnson: What interests you about the lives of the disenfranchised in Black Tickets? How are you able to inhabit them so completely?
Phillips: In the same way that presence is sometimes defined by absence. That is, you don't know what something is until it's absent from you and you miss it. I think outlaws, outcasts, the disenfranchised, or those who are outside the Ozzie and Harriet stereotype often define the values of a culture and a civilization. Literature is the conscience of a culture, and that conscience should deal with what the culture is trying to reject, with what the culture does not recognize.
In the past, people who read were upper class and educated people. Now, even those people don't read. It's like the idea of the canary in the coal mine. Miners took the bird into the coal mine and when it fell over in its tiny cage, they knew there wasn't enough oxygen. Literature inhabits that same territory. Many times, I don't see disenfranchised characters as being that far from the mainstream. For instance, in this country, the top five percent of people whose incomes are highest control most of the wealth, and wield most of the influence. I sometimes feel that I'm writing for those who won't write for themselves. I'm articulating thoughts, feelings, or losses people can't articulate for themselves. That's a kind of spiritual and political necessity. Art must do that.
Johnson: How do you create realism in these gritty contexts?
Phillips: "No ideas, but in things," as the Pound dictum states. No matter what the voice, style, or technique of a piece, my work is always grounded in physical and sensual detail. Physicality has to be present because the work tries to go so far spiritually, and the reader can't move inward without being extremely grounded in sensory reality. The piece can't move off without first being real and convincing. We're all concerned with what reality means. Does it mean anything? Is there anything besides this moment or this room? What are these dimensions that we inhabit in our thoughts, which are not physical, or in our dreams, or memories? Literature is operating in that territory, in a dimension that isn't real, yet can connect with the real in a way that's sensory. It can trigger memory that is actually sensual, memories of smells, feelings, or tastes. You work your way into a psychic understanding through the real world. You do it every day in your life and in your art.
Johnson: Is this something you have to keep in mind as you're working?
Phillips: No. I don't make any decisions while I'm working. Some people comfort themselves with decisions and work into the interior of the piece, but that's just a different way of doing it. I want my work to have an organic organization-to feel and appear to the reader as if it opens out of itself like an organic thing: like a flower or a piece of fruit. I don't make decisions about it at the outset. I try to take my cues from the work itself, because if I make decisions I'm going to limit what I can do.
Johnson: Do you believe that writers should "write what they know," as the adage states?
Phillips: Yes, I do, but you don't always know what you know. The more practiced you are as a writer, the more that might be true, and the more you might be able to write that way. You have to start with what you know, and that gets back to the question of physical detail. The reader has to start with something the reader knows. "My mother left home." Everyone immediately relates to that sentence. Everyone has had a mother, and everyone has been separated from their mother at some point. Language is operating in deep subconscious territory, and words set up associations. The writer doesn't have to be conscious of those associations; language communicates them.
Johnson: Several of your stories take place on the border between Mexico and Texas, and depict the intersection of American and Latina cultures, such as in "El Paso" and "Mamasita." Did you live in that part of the country? What interests you about these intersections?
Phillips: Again, that's an outlaw question. Any time you have an intersection of one thing smacking up against another, whether it's age versus youth, wealth versus poverty, or one culture versus another, something is going to happen. Just as various religions arise from various cultures, various ways of handling language arise within cultures, and that is a very rich subject matter. I did spend some time in Mexico and Texas, and some of those ideas and details came from visual instances. "Mamasita" is set in New York City. You can find anybody anywhere.
Johnson: Many of these stories are preoccupied with specific family events that shape or permanently shade characters' lives; for instance, in "Home" you have the absence of the father and the mother's illness. What draws you to writing about family?
Phillips: Family is endlessly fascinating. It's the psychic map that we use all of our lives. We start out with the first pattern, much of it unconscious in the beginning. The mother and father, or the absence of the mother or father, or the people who stand in for the mother or father, are colossal figures in the beginning, like the sun and the moon. They have that mythic power. They have very much to do with how we first see ourselves, how we relate to men and women, what we want, what we don't have, and what we have to provide for ourselves. Then, as we get a little older, identity is formed in relationship to siblings, to place, to the culture we're in, and all of that is reflected again in the microcosm of family. Each of us is separated from one another inside our identities, and we only really overcome that separation in certain moments: in sexual moments, in moments of passion, physical passion, athletics, or art. We move beyond identity when we forget time and lose our boundaries. That blood connection to another person is something we feel with family. We inherit our parents' physical characteristics and mannerisms. We also inherit their unresolved dilemmas, unresolved losses, dreams that didn't happen. All these things are subliminally communicated inside families and relationships. That's why myths are so powerful. Myths have to do with identity and who we are in relation to the people who made us. Writing about family is like writing about weather-it's such a big part of the world.
Johnson: Who are some of the writers who've influenced you?
Phillips: A whole gamut of people. Initially, and still, most of them are writers who broke the rules in one way or another, or made their own rules. Writers like Faulkner, Burroughs, Bruno Shultz, or Flannery O'Connor. A lot of the Southern writers for their connection to the physical world, and their enslavement to it. A lot of the central European writers, such as Kafka, for his anomie, that almost existential separation from the world, and a lot of language-oriented writers, such as James Agee, because language was my way into writing. Spiritually, I'm attracted to writers who seem to have gone somewhere, who've been to the other side, and have come back to bear witness to that event. That is, writers who can represent other dimensions of being in language, like Katherine Anne Porter, or William Maxwell. A story like Cheever's "The Swimmer," in which a metaphor represents a whole journey into death, compresses time almost miraculously.
Johnson: You also write about people coming of age in the context of family, how children often outgrow the constrained and limited world of their parents, and yet cannot fully come to terms with the wider world beyond the family. In the story "Fast Lanes," for example, there is a desire for safety, yet an unwillingness-or inability-to accept or create safety of one's own.
Phillips: I don't believe in safety. People struggle with wanting to grab safety and hold onto it. When we're children, if our parents do a decent job, we think we're safe. We don't actually know that our parents don't control Ebola or "mad cow disease." If we grow up inside some kind of safety, there's a period of time in which we struggle with realizing that there wasn't ever the kind of safety we thought we lived inside. Then we come into the situation of trying to provide safety in our lives for our partners, for our children, for our families, or ourselves. The stories in Fast Lanes, and a lot of other work I've done, have been about the struggle to accept the fact that there is no safety. It's interesting to look at the ways that different cultures represent the way the world is supposed to be. For instance, the Buddhist idea that life is suffering is one way of looking at it, that what we're here to do is to learn compassion. It's not about getting as much as we can get. It's about finding out what things mean and connecting one thing to another, and deepening the spiral into meaning. This is not a random universe; life is not random. Art stands against the notion that this is simply where we find ourselves and life is meaningless. Art makes its own meaning. It evokes the connections between us, and the existence of a dimension bigger than us, a dimension that holds time inside it, which is something we cannot understand. We now know how many genes there are, but we have no idea how they work. How language and speech operate inside a culture is just as various as the information genes hold and where they hold it.
Johnson: What is the role of autobiography in your fiction?
Phillips: It's a starting point, much in the way that physical details are a starting point for writing about meaning and time and dimension. The reader should think that whatever you write is autobiographical, because they should be convinced intensely of the reality of the piece. They should feel that it comes from somewhere very deep in the writer. But the minute you work in language or fiction, there's a translation that occurs-like the translation from one language to another, from book to film, thought to speech. Life and art are such different forms of being. One fears death; the other subverts it.
Johnson: When you're writing a short story, what do you look for in an ending?
Phillips: I look for a stepping-off-into-space kind of feeling, a rightness, a surprise, or the feeling that something has been set into motion and suddenly at the end, all becomes clear. Novels can work in a lot of different ways because they use a much bigger canvas. Novels work with patterns, whereas stories must succeed with words alone.
Johnson: What was it like to go from writing short stories to writing your first novel, Machine Dreams?
Phillips: I see all my work as a continuum. One book opens out into the next in a very natural way. I've often thought about books for years before I've written them. I've written each book as I was ready or able to write it, psychically. There's a natural timing to how writers write. They may resist it, or dislike it, but timing is one element of writing that I trust. I'd been writing stories, and the characters in some of the stories were recognizable as characters in the novel. It was set in what I remembered about my hometown, although by the time I wrote the book, my hometown had vanished. That's another thing about autobiography. By the time you write about something, it no longer exists. Memory is so faulty and so selective; memory is the proverbial blind man and the elephant. There may be a certain piece that's very similar to what you remember, but the whole is a very different reality than anything that ever happened.
Black Tickets was about a kind of anger and mobility. The intense energy that survivors have is in itself an incredible form of life, the optimism of energy itself, that pell-mell forward motion of it. With Machine Dreams, I started with that energy and then looked back at what created it, and at that world. Writing is very political. You're political in what you choose to write about and the way you choose to write about it. Machine Dreams was my looking at the world that had enclosed that small town where I first became aware of identity in myself and in others. I think of Shelter as being about the politics of family and the absence of family. I think about the story "Lechery" and Shelter as being connected. In "Lechery," a child makes a family out of what she can find, and operates out of instincts that have been fractured by the world she lives in. In Shelter, four children with secrets find themselves in an extremely isolated, sensual, lush, and fierce setting without families. It was a passion play-a group of children moving through an underworld, a rite of passage into a survival they created for themselves. It was a book about jarred dimensions, one reality existing alongside another, and how perception alters reality.
Johnson: In Machine Dreams, why did you choose to write from each characters' point-of-view rather than a third person, or omniscient narrator?
Phillips: In all my books I use time in a particular way. In Machine Dreams, the family in the book become familial to the reader. You encounter the same characters after lapses of time, and suddenly see them at a different point. I wanted readers to inhabit the minds of each character, to have a sense of recognition each time they encountered one of those characters.
Johnson: Was it difficult to differentiate each voice in these chapters?
Phillips: No. But it depends on what you're trying to do. In both Shelter and Machine Dreams, I wanted readers to circle through the world of the book, whereas in Motherkind, I wanted readers to remain inside Kate's mind, because that is where she stands in the book, in this isolated, yet intensely sensory space.
Johnson: Why did you decide to write the war chapters-both Mitch's experiences in World War II and Billy's in Vietnam-as a series of letters between characters?
Phillips: In West Virginia, particularly at that time, men and women lived in very different worlds. Men were defined by the work they did, and women were defined by family, even if they worked outside the home. I grew up in a world in which men weren't expected to be articulate, and were suspect if they were articulate. When I was writing Machine Dreams, I was given a box of my father's letters from World War II. They were letters in which this very plain-speaking voice says plain, simple things. But they're made eloquent by distance, time, the situation, and the fact that he was speaking for thousands of men. I wanted to work with the contrast in language and tone that there would be between men in similar, yet very dissimilar, situations because the world had changed so incredibly. The letters were a natural way to do that.
Johnson: In Machine Dreams your characters, rather than becoming drifters, settle into makeshift relationships, seeking comfort in familiar routine. Mitch and Jean's relationship is an example of this attempt to settle. But even family can't provide safety or respite from the wider world. In this case, the life of the family collides with history-the Vietnam War. What interests you about this collision?
Phillips: There's always a collision. It could be the Vietnam War. It could be Wall Street. It could be anything. That war was a turning point and important for the generations that have inhabited this century. People make decisions that have political consequences, and there's a ripple effect. Decisions made at a high level move down until they affect your son or your daughter, and then suddenly it's a matter of life and death. That's what Machine Dreams is about. It's about paying attention. And how we live in a world where it's even easier not to pay attention. Kids aren't on the line, unless they're poor kids who join the army.
Johnson: You stay focused on the personal, intimate effects of war, and create a novel that could be called political without actually exploring politics. Was this intentional?
Phillips: The personal is political. There's no point in commenting on the political in a novel in a straightforward way because that's not the basis of the narrative. If you're going to comment directly on the political, you should be writing speeches or running for office. Also, you want to address yourself not just to what is happening at a particular moment, but to all of it. This comes back to questions of identity itself. Sometimes books that are extremely personal become political, because they are set in language, and they're bound between covers, and they suddenly have a different significance. Motherkind is an extremely personal book in that it's about one woman's life, one death, one birth, and one year. It's set in a typical East Coast, New England family-typical now being that there's been a divorce, a step-family with lots of kids, baby boomer people taking care of aging parents and raising young kids at the same time. Yet the stories of our lives are intimately political, though we often don't have time to notice as we're getting up in the morning and rushing through the day. Motherkind is not obviously set in a particular time, but it strongly hints at the '80s and it represents a time when women were, as now, expected to do everything. They expected it of themselves. They had to be successful, and to be parents, and to be fabulous mothers who were working with reading and writing with their three month-old child. How do those expectations measure up against the ageless rituals and questions about how death should happen, how people separate after a lifetime of relationship, what death means, how death can occur in a society like ours and retain any meaning for those involved in it? It's interesting that we now hire help to do or to move through the most basic transitions that family and community used to support, whether it's birth, labor, death, illness. These important junctures have traditionally been handled by women or by feminine sensibilities, and now we often hire hospice workers, midwives, babysitters, or au pairs-all the people we have to call on to support the way that people live now. And those people are still, by and large, women. I find that an interesting juncture of cultures. One of the big questions in Motherkind is how is this transition going to happen in this new world? In that book, what is eternal about female sensibility manifests itself in a surprising way, or in a way that is surprising to Kate. And it works. Together, the women move according to more ancient rules of identity and communication. Women who have experienced and been through labor can truly see death as a similar process. I'm teaching A Death in the Family, James Agee's novel, and "They Came Like Swallows," William Maxwell's story which was based on his mother's death. In both of those works, and in numerous other instances, the labor metaphor applies not only to giving birth, but to certain touchstones of identity or life passage. There is a process of labor that comes along with any massive realization or transition. Any major transition or realization is a birthing process, even if it has to do with grief. It's a movement into a larger identity that can hold more realization, more sorrow, more understanding, and more meaning.
Johnson: How was writing your second novel, Shelter, different from working on the first?
Phillips: As John Irving says, none of the novels knows that you've written any of the other novels. Writing is always like working without a net. It doesn't get easier. I think it's actually easier in the beginning because you don't know what you're wading into.
Johnson: When you first start working on a book like Shelter, how much do you know about the story before you begin writing?
Phillips: I never know very much about the story, because I don't conceive of things in terms of story. Shelter was a situation in which I'd written the section that appears in italics at the beginning years before I started the book. I knew the entire book was inside that paragraph, but of course I didn't know what the parameters of that world were. I've always been interested in bonding between girls, and in a child's point of view as a consciousness inside a book or inside a world. I wrote my way into those characters through their points of view, voices, and perceptions.
Johnson: When you say that you don't conceive of a book in story, do you mean that it comes to you in a voice?
Phillips: Or a certain image. In that first paragraph of Shelter, there's a real sense of a world. There's a denseness. Shelter was written in a very specific type of voice that was difficult to sustain. It has to hold the reader inside it in the same way that the physical world of Camp Shelter holds these children, to isolate the reader from the world that he or she really lives in and pull them into this world until the book has finished its arc.
Johnson: In Shelter, the loss of innocence that is a necessary end to childhood has dangerous and tragic outcomes. What interested you in exploring the inner world of violated children and the degrees to which they understand that violation?
Phillips: I think all children are violated. That's part of childhood. I don't mean violated physically. Children, because they're powerless and extremely impressionable, and part of their identity is interfacing with the world, are bound to feel violated. I don't see Shelter as a tragedy. I see it as a situation in which these children manage to save one another and come out of it. What would have happened if Carmody had just kept going?
I was working with the idea of damage, in the same way that Machine Dreams was working with the ripple effect of political damage-decisions that are made far away from ordinary lives that ripple down to completely obliterate those lives. I was working with the ripple effect of damage inside a character who has been so damaged that he's in the process of exploding. He's like a psychic suicide bomber who's almost disassociated. He creates the politics of the planet for the people he's living with or near. How do the relatedness and the connections between these children finally protect them, and what do they do with that later? What do we do with secrets? I don't have an answer, but the book poses the questions.
Johnson: Both Alma and Buddy carry unbearable secrets, and while Alma needs a spiritual unburdening-she "wanted a series of screams that opened out until the earth shook"-Buddy needs a physical salvation. He needs to be left alone by his stepfather. What drew you to exploring the different dimensions and manifestations of this issue in these two very different characters?
Phillips: We all stand at the apex of our own lives. Lines are intersecting, and we're standing at the center of our own circles. Alma has been a confidante and a witness. She's the writer in the book, obviously. Buddy has a kind of every-child sensibility. Alma'Ã¼ working with the burden of her mother's life, and the burden of the secret, while Buddy's working not only with the burden of the secret, but with the burden of needing to save his motherÃ‘pretty impossible at age seven or eight, yet he manages to do it. These characters are standing at different points along the same spectrum. That's how books should work. They let the reader inhabit different stages, different movements through a spectrum, through an arc concurrently. The reader takes an entire journey that is like different facets of light coming to a point.
Johnson: Buddy is reminiscent of the marooned boys in William Golding's Lord of the Flies. Were you aware of this while you were writing him?
Phillips: I thought of it more as a Lord of the Flies having to do with girls-a female version of a marooned group of children. They're not marooned physically, but they're marooned far away from the war of their parents' lives, the war of their parents' relationships, in the same way that World War II is going on way outside the confines of this island where the children are in Lord of the Flies. I think that Shelter is a much more optimistic book though. Instead of finding a group of children who take on the macho games that have created the war that's going on across the ocean, you find in Shelter a group of children who begin to think each other's thoughts, who begin to work in tandem in a layered and primal world. There's the sense that the physical world is an ally, and that it provides a set of rules that are more ancient and fair than the rules they're learning inside family.
Johnson: What's your process like when you're working on a novel?
Phillips: It's the same process no matter what I'm working on. I work according to language. I work starting with language, so that my process is simply to work my way into the next sentence. Sustaining the voice of a book is level one, where I have to stay to move forward. I work very slowly, until I find my way into the middle of the book. I know what to write next by reading what I've already written.
Johnson: Do you do a lot of revisions?
Phillips: Not really. I ceaselessly go over what I've written, but I'm not making major changes. I'm just fixing it by making minor changes that might have a big effect. I don't write reams of material and then throw it out.
Johnson: Now that you've successfully written both short stories and novels, do find that you prefer one form over the other?
Phillips: In the past 15 years, I've preferred novels because I like the sense of living in relationship with the material for a long time and being able to descend more and more deeply into it.
Johnson: Motherkind is a departure from your earlier, darker novels and stories, and takes as its setting the domestic scene. What precipitated this shift in subject matter?
Phillips: I think it's just as dark as my other novels, and just as bright-they all work their way into the open. I wanted to look at dark material, like death, but inside a very accessible surface. I wanted the language of Motherkind, unlike the language in say, Shelter, to be superficially simple, clear, and familiar. I wanted to look at the ancient, mythic dimension of both birth and death as spiritual transitions and departures inside a very ordinary world. That was a difficult voice to sustain, too, for different reasons.
Kate is a poet in the book, so she is more reflective and language-oriented than your average person, but she's living a very normal life. How does identity function in that world? It's a total surprise to her that she feels what she feels toward her child, even though she's grown up to consider parenting from a daughter's perspective. When giving birth really happens, it defies conventional explanation or definition. What does it have to tell her about her extremely strong connection to her own mother? All through my work, there has been this sense of the confidante inside the parent-child relationship, that double burden of being the one who is chosen or selected for special attention, for secrets, for confidences, the one who holds everyone else's life story. It's the writer-in-the-family idea. Kate thinks that she's rejected her mother's life. She's tried hard not to be like her mother, though she respects and loves Katherine. She's tried to escape the limits of her mother's time. Motherkind is an exploration of where women really are, what they really have, what they've lost, and what they've gained.
Johnson: Were there challenges you faced in writing this novel that were particular to writing on the domestic scene?
Phillips: The challenge was really in the reception of the novel. The minute you write a book that's domestically-oriented, you automatically cut your readership, or your serious readership, in half. There's a ghetto-ization of subject matter that has to do with women's lives. It's the writer's responsibility not to pander to an audience or to a culture or to a publishing climate. You just have to do what you need to do and let the rest of it happen.
Johnson: In Motherkind, did you draw on personal experience more than in your other work?
Phillips: No. It seems that I did. People assumed so, but in fact I didn't really remember what it was like to have a baby or an infant! There's a selective amnesia that happens. I felt as though I was creating a world that I had visited a hundred years before. There were certain things, like the paper that lined the baby's drawers, that were real, but a lot of it was created inside the writing, just as it was in Shelter or Machine Dreams or in any of my stories.
Johnson: Do you still teach?
Phillips: I teach one semester a year at Brandeis as Fiction Writer-in-Residence.
Johnson: What are some of the common problems you find in your students' work?
Phillips: They just don't read. Even if they think they read, they, in actuality, don't read much. They don't come to writing with various backgrounds in reading. They haven't read a spectrum of writers, or read all the works of six or seven writers. Now more than ever, they're very sound and print-oriented, that is, very popular culture-oriented. They have less and less of a sense of history, and less interest in history. Kids who are 20 now grow up in a world in which emotional literacy is discouraged by the culture they live in. I don't hold them personally responsible. Somebody has to come along and convince them that it's important to read.
Johnson: What would you say to someone working on their first novel or stories?
Phillips: They need to remember that it's a privilege to do the work. The point for others may be what you produce and whether it's good enough, but the point for you, the writer, is doing the work.
Sarah Anne Johnson earned an MFA from the Bennington College Writing Seminars. She has fiction forthcoming in Other Voices. Her interviews have appeared in The Writer's Chronicle, and are forthcoming in The Writer. She currently works as the Program Coordinator for the YMCA National Writer's Voice program. She lives in Truro, MA.www.sarahannejohnson.com